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The Runnin’ Utes are proving their coach right early in the season

Utah returns home to play seven games in Salt Lake City after starting 5-2 in November after beating Hawaii on Thursday night.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Hunter Erickson (0) goes for a lay up as Hawaii Warriors center Mor Seck (23) defends at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

Craig Smith wanted shooting.

It looks like he went out and got it.

A 53.9 effective field goal percentage. A 39.1 three-point percentage. A 114 adjusted offensive efficiency.

Utah is playing like a top-50 offense in the country right now and it has fueled a 5-2 start this season.

“Certainly we recruited to it, the guys we brought in” the transfer portal can shoot, Smith said on Wednesday.

A year ago, shooting was the Achilles heel of a middling Pac-12 team. The Runnin’ Utes were outside the top 200 in three-point percentage and 257th in effective field goal percentage.

During the offseason, Smith told anyone who’d listen that he added reinforcements to make sure it didn’t happen again. But when you looked into it, it was slightly more complicated.

The only true shooter he added was Washington guard Cole Bajema (who shot 36% from three in Seattle).

So in a sense, Smith’s bet was on his returning players getting patter. It could be a risky gamble. But through the first month, that bet has paid off. Utah went on the road to Saint Mary’s and shot 41.2% from three and knocked off the Gaels in Moraga. It also hung with Houston.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) looks to pass as Hawaii Warriors forward Harry Rouhliadeff (14) blocks at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

“We have a team full of young men who love to be in the gym,” Smith said, acknowledging it wasn’t only the transfer portal. “So there is not always a magic pill. You have to invest the time. ... There is no excuse.”

Schematically, you can point to different things this year that have helped. Utah’s tempo is up after being one of the slower-paced teams in the country over the last two years. It is also top 25 in assist percentage (with assists on 61% of made baskets, according to Kenpom).

“There is an old adage: Good passing teams are good shooting teams,” Smith said. “I think we have a good passing team. Which lends to make more shots on a consistent basis. I think [they] know where [they] are going to get [their] shots. And it is delivered on time, on target, which lends to making more shots. So I anticipate that to be the case moving forward.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Keba Keita (13) goes to slam dunk the ball against the Hawaii Warriors at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

But more than anything, it is the returners making a jump. Nearly every player on the roster right now is shooting better than they did last year.

Gabe Madsen is up nine percentage points (45%). Branden Carlson is up three percentage points (36%). The newcomer Bajema, meanwhile, is up to 44.8%.

Thursday’s 79-66 win over Hawaii at Delta Center kicked off a stretch of seven home games for the Utes. (Branden Carlson had 17 points, Hunter Erickson scored 15 and Keiba Keta had 14 in the win Thursday.) Before conference play begins, the Utes’ last big test will be BYU on Dec. 9 at home.

The season is still new. Smith’s bet still has a long way to go. But so far, it’s paying off.